All night the storm had raged, and the ground outside was littered with broken branches and other debris when the woman let herself out of the house.
The big tree had fallen, as she’d known it would. She had heard it fall in the night, a tearing, crashing ripping that had sounded loudly even over the storm. Now it lay, a shattered ruin, over the remains of two smaller trees, which it had snapped off like matchsticks.
She shook her head sadly. The old tree had stood there as long as she could remember, old already when she had first come to this house as a young bride, so many years ago. But she’d known it was weakening, known that it would fall. Maybe she should have had it cut down.
She shook her head again, a tiny motion of negation. No, she could never have let that tree be cut down.
A voice spoke at her shoulder. “Well, its time had come.”
She didn’t turn her head to look, because she already knew there wasn’t anyone there. Besides, the voice was long familiar, and she knew it was in her mind. “Go away,” she said calmly.
“Why,” the voice said, in pretended sorrow, “don’t you love me anymore? You were glad enough to talk to me at night during the storm.”
“You aren’t real,” she told it. “Go away.”
“I’m as real as I want to be,” the voice said. “Why, when I remember back in the day...”
Ignoring it, the woman walked down to the fallen tree. It hadn’t been uprooted, but had broken in two about a metre off the ground. The wood there had long been cracked and fissured, and white fungus grew there in profusion every year in summer.
It was not summer, and there were no fungi growing now.
Stooping slowly and with some pain due to her knees, the woman picked up some of the larger branches and tossed them aside. The stump was blackened around the crack as though it had been burned, and the wood was soft and leathery with rot.
“Couldn’t have lasted any longer anyway,” she muttered.
“An old crock, like me, like you,” the voice nattered on. “We’re all being eaten away from inside.”
“Not you, you aren’t,” she told it firmly. “You’re only a figment of the imagination, remember?” Stepping up to the stump, she was distracted by a flicker of movement. Something went skittering away, just past the edge of her vision. She caught the merest glimpse of grey fur.
The stump was hollow. Long ago, the rot had penetrated through to the centre and eaten it away, leaving a cylindrical hole that sank away down rootwards. She put her hand into it, and the black, rotten wood seemed to swallow it up completely.
“It’s deeper than you think,” the voice said. “It probably goes down all the way to the centre of the earth.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” The wood felt smooth and vaguely warm, despite the chill of the autumn morning. When she pressed with her fingertips, she felt it give. It was slightly repulsive in a fascinating way, as though she was touching some potentially dangerous but quiescent creature. She rubbed with her fingers and felt the soft wood crumble away. “As though you would know anything about it.”
“I know everything you know, don’t I?” The voice replied triumphantly. “Since you say that I’m only a construct of your mind, that is.”
“I...” She stopped suddenly. Her fingers had found something in the wood, something hard and rounded. It had the feel of metal.
“You know what they call you?” the voice continued, jeering. “The kids down in the village? They call you the mad witch woman. You know that, don’t you?”
“Hush,” she told it, rubbing at the wood, trying to free the metal. It came loose suddenly, falling into her palm. She held it up and out to the light, knowing what it was before she forced herself to look at it.
A bullet lay in her hand.
The autumn morning, grey as it was, seemed to grey out even more for an endless minute. She clutched her fists tight and crammed them into her jacket pockets. The bullet felt as though it was burning a hole in her palm.
“So if I know they think you’re a crazy witch, that must mean you do too, and –“
“Oh, go away,” she hissed, with such force that the voice fell silent. There was violence in the air, a seething cloud which filled her vision. Through it she felt that things around her were changing, the years falling away, and the air was warm with the smells of spring.
Warm with the smell of blood.
She screwed her eyes shut, knowing what she would see if she opened them, the years rolled away, the man with the gun across the garden, standing by the wall.
Her voice, raw with screaming in her throat, and the man, raising his gun to squeeze off another shot. She didn’t know how he’d managed to miss with the last one. She’d hardly been able to move with fear.
“He’s playing with you,” the thought came dimly, “He’ll play with you until he’s had enough, and then he will finish it.”
The smell of blood, that too, she knew where it was coming from. If she had moved her foot even a little she would have felt her husband’s body. That body had been wrapped around her in bed only half an hour ago, and now it was lying there, empty as an old beer bottle.
She didn’t even know who the man was.
She’d reacted then, hadn’t she? She’d put her feet down, one in front of the other, and walked across to the man, stepping over the body of her husband. She’d done that quite calmly, hadn’t she? She must have smiled, too. Yes, probably she had smiled, and she’d shrugged the dressing gown off her bare shoulders, and walked naked across the grass, smiling, holding out her hands. Hadn’t she? She must have done, because he hadn’t shot at her. And then...
She could not make herself remember what had happened then. All she knew was that she had had a hard time cleaning his blood, both their blood, off herself. And then she had called the police.
She’d been a heroine, for a day. A tragic heroine, they’d called her.
That was the way it had happened, wasn’t it?
She clutched the bullet tighter than ever, her shoulders hunched until the black fog had begun to clear from her eyes.
“Crazy woman,” the voice jeered. “Crazy, crazy woman.”
“Yes, crazy woman,” she replied, watching another scuttling grey shape from the corner of her eye. “What’s your point?”
She walked back up to the house, and the squirrel jumped up to the broken stump and watched her go.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2014